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B-School Insider Interview: Alice Francis, MIT Sloan, Class of 2013

Originally from Morristown, New Jersey, MIT Sloan second year Alice Francis attended Hamilton College in upstate New York, where she majored in physics and classical studies. After briefly considering a physics PhD, she decided to pursue a different career path instead and entered the consulting world with Deloitte in the firm’s New York office. Helping a friend with a start-up opened her eyes to entrepreneurship, igniting an interest in small ventures that eventually lead her to pursue an MBA at Sloan.

 

mbaMission:  Hi, Alice. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today about the MBA program at Sloan.

Alice Francis: No problem!

mbaMission: So you are a career changer, shifting from consulting to entrepreneurship via your Sloan MBA. How did that come about?

AF: I worked with a friend on her start-up and kind of decided that that was a better fit for me—working in a small, small company. So yeah, it is a huge career change, going from a 300,000 person company to a five-person company.

mbaMission: So did you target Sloan specifically for entrepreneurship?

AF: I did. I targeted Sloan for a couple of reasons. One of them was that there’s a huge entrepreneurship community and culture at Sloan and at MIT in general, so that was a big factor. Another big factor was because I really did love my education in physics, I wanted to be at a school—not just the business school, but a university in general—that had a lot of amazing science going on. So being on MIT’s campus, where people are working on the most challenging problems in the world, is really inspiring.

And culture was a big piece for me. When I was doing my research during the application process, I contacted a number of Sloan alumni and really felt that those people were warmer, more welcoming, more supportive than people that I had talked to at other schools, and they also emphasized the culture at Sloan as being really wonderful and having that same support system in place. It’s not a very competitive environment. It’s more supportive than it is competitive. And it’s full of very intelligent people that are also humble.

mbaMission: Yes, humble. We hear that word all the time in relation to Sloan. So the alumni were pretty responsive when you reached out to them?

AF: Yes. There wasn’t a single Sloan person that didn’t follow up with me or pick up the phone to chat with me. I had one person that was willing to talk to me multiple times, and he even called me the day before my interview. He knew that I was a little nervous and was just like, “You’ve got this,” you know, “It’s fine.” It was really supportive, and I mean, honestly, I probably talked to more Sloan people than I did for many other schools, and that’s because the response rate was 100%. My impression was that they want to take care of people that are interested in the school.

I was really attracted to that, and I don’t think I knew that MIT had a business school before I started looking at the rankings in U.S. News [& World Report], and I was like, “Oh, cool, MIT has a business school. That’s really awesome.” And then I started doing research, and I got the sense by doing research and reading articles online and talking to the alumni that it was the place for me to be. And I felt so strongly that I wasn’t going to go anywhere else if I didn’t get into Sloan.

mbaMission: Did you end up applying to any other schools?

AF: I did, but I backed out. I did—some schools that were focused on entrepreneurship—but I was kind of like, Sloan is the only place for me, and then I withdrew my applications once I got into Sloan because I was not even interested in finding out the results.

mbaMission: I’m glad it worked out!

AF: Yeah. I feel very lucky.

mbaMission:  Once you got to Sloan, did you decide to pursue one of the tracks?

AF: Yes, the entrepreneurship and innovation track. The majority of the entrepreneurship classes at Sloan are accessible to anyone that attends, and one of the reasons I like Sloan is because of the flexible curriculum. When I was an undergrad, I went to Hamilton, which had no core curriculum. So I really was able to build my own education at Hamilton, and MIT Sloan was really the only school that I felt had that amount of flexibility, where I could build my own education and make decisions—where I could say, “This is what I want out of the two years at Sloan,” rather than being told I have to fulfill a certain number of requirements.

We only have one semester of core curriculum, as you probably know, and then the track puts on top of that a couple of other classes that you need to fulfill, but on the whole, it’s a very flexible curriculum. So the way the track works is there is an entrepreneurship seminar in the fall that is three hours a week, and speakers will come in and tell you about their experiences, and we’ll go over different topics.

And then in the spring semester, we will take about four days and go to Silicon Valley and visit start-ups. And those are the only two things that if you are not in the track, you cannot access. The rest of the classes that are required in the track, you can take them whether you’re in the track or not, which is nice. So you don’t have to be in the track if you don’t want to be and can still get a great entrepreneurship education. The value of the track is really building the community. There’s lot of value in meeting other people that have similar experiences or similar passions. So going on the Silicon Valley study tour is a great way to bond with people that are passionate about entrepreneurship.

mbaMission: How would you describe your team experience?

AF: My team experience was great. Sloan puts a lot of thought into who goes onto what team. I don’t know anything about their process, but to give you an example, I had three other classmates from the United States, a classmate from Argentina, a classmate from Japan, and a classmate from Egypt. And we all came from different industries and different job functions, so the great thing was, you’re going through this core curriculum, where you’re kind of getting the business basics, and everyone has a different strength that they bring to the table.

So therefore, when someone that’s in marketing doesn’t understand the finance part of it, the person that has finance expertise can help everybody else out, which is really nice. It’s a very collaborative environment in which people are willing to take time to explain something if someone needs help, which is nice. Not to mention that it brings a different perspective to the table when going through case write-ups and all that.

mbaMission: Is there ever a situation where somebody does not get along with their team or a team just isn’t working together well? What happens then?

AF: I haven’t heard of too many instances of that happening but, of course, it’s bound to come up. They do not allow you to quit your team, so if you have a problem on your team, if there is an extreme kind of friction going on, a lot of people will try to work it out themselves—mostly because, you know, it’s your first semester, and you probably don’t want to be known as the team that’s having a major breakdown. They do some kind of team counseling if it gets to that extreme, but that didn’t happen to us. My team was great. I don’t know the details of how that kind of support system works [for teams that don’t get along], but it’s there.

mbaMission: One thing we hear a lot about the Sloan experience is the concept of hands-on learning. How have you experienced that?

AF: I really love that aspect of it, and that’s another reason I came to Sloan, especially as a physics major. I really wanted not to just do case method and was used to doing more hands-on type of stuff as a scientist anyway. And the nice thing about that aspect is—especially in entrepreneurship—there are a number of classes where you can be working on your own business and kind of using your business as the model as they’re teaching you about financial models in entrepreneurship. And that’s cool, because not only does it benefit you but you’re learning something as well.

We have all these lab classes—there’s entrepreneurship lab, global entrepreneurship lab. I did global entrepreneurship lab last semester, which is an action learning class. Basically what happens is you have part of the semester learning about entrepreneurship in different emerging markets and then you get paired with a company—they tell you about companies that you could work with, and you rank which ones you’d like to work with and apply as a team—and you work with them from October through January. Then in January for three weeks you go to wherever they’re located and you work with them kind of as a consultant for three weeks.

So that’s our biggest action learning class, the entrepreneurship lab, and I had a really amazing experience doing that. My client was fantastic. I went to Indonesia and worked with the leading digital incubator there, and you learn things about working with a team. You’re put in a lot of team environments where you really have to work on something that’s real, that’s going to make an impact at a company. I thought it was great. It’s taking you outside of just the MIT and Sloan community and putting you into a real situation where you’re doing real work and putting your head together with your classmates, then trying to come up with a solution to a problem that someone is actually facing. It’s pretty cool.

mbaMission: You mentioned January—can you tell us about the Independent Activities Period that students have that month? This seems to be unique to Sloan.

AF: Yeah. So the activities period is actually an MIT thing. It’s a month where everybody takes off, and there are a number of classes that happen during that time that you can take—cool classes like poker or the nuts and bolts of business plans. That’s a big class that happens during that time period. My first year, I actually went on a trek. I went with seven of my classmates to Antarctica. We actually went on a cruise, because that’s kind of the only way you can get there, and this trek was highly organized by the cruise line that we purchased through. So there was hiking and checking out glaciers and penguin colonies, and that type of stuff. So that was really awesome.

There are a number of different types of travel opportunities. One of them is like global entrepreneurship lab, which I already mentioned, but there are treks, which are more social trips. People from a particular geographic area will organize those. For example, the students from Sloan that are from Japan will organize a trip for our classmates to go to Japan over like ten days, and this is really cool, because you’re being guided around a country by the locals. So that’s a really cool perspective. And I think Japan Trek maybe was our most popular this year and last year. I want to say 120 people went on that trip.

mbaMission: Wow, that’s a lot.

AF: Yeah. So those are usually social, but sometimes they have a more professional element, like maybe someone is well connected and knows some industry leaders or political people. I went on the Jordan and Lebanon trek over the summer, and we had a meeting with the prince. So sometimes those situations come up where you might be meeting with business leaders or other types of leaders, but on the whole, the treks are more of a vacation type of trip, whereas with the study tour, which is a different type of trip, you actually have a class component, and then you go there and you study something.

For example, this semester there was a Qatar study tour, and they were studying how Qatar is trying to kind of integrate the country with entrepreneurship there. One of our classmates, I think our first Qatari to attend Sloan—she lead that and built the class around it. And so those, I believe, are student proposed, but they’re education based. I think there are probably some vacation elements in there, but there’s also an education component on the trip.

mbaMission: Do you get any credit for the ones that are more social?

AF: No, the social ones are just for fun.

mbaMission: How has the Evolving Campus Project affected life at the school during your time there?

AF: I didn’t know it was called that, but I can tell you that I benefitted greatly from it. The new building at Sloan, E62—which I think my class, 2013, was the first class to have for a full year—it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful building, and it has a really great open space for the café. Running into people is never difficult, because people are having lunch there, doing work, and it’s—I’m not really sure what the facilities were like before, but I can’t imagine they lived up to the amount of community building that is coming from having such a large lunch space.

There are classrooms, little working office spaces that you can go into if you want to do homework with a team or by yourself and kind of shut the door on that social aspect for a little bit while you write a case, and obviously, the lunch area is more social, and they’ll have events there. I think like once a month or every other month we have an activity called One Sloan where they’ll have food and beer so that all the Sloan community can get together—not just the MBAs but the MFins and the EMBAs and the PhD students and undergrads can come and mingle with each other.

mbaMission: Did you have any professors that particularly impressed you?

AF: I guess one that stands out is Leigh Hafrey. He is an ethics professor, and ethics and leadership are a large part of our curriculum and go with Sloan’s mission statement of developing principled and innovative leaders. So he’s kind of the man on entrepreneurship, and I took one of his classes last semester. I’m taking a class this semester, and I took one last semester, “Literature, Ethics and Authority.”

We’d read stories or watch movies that had an ethical component to them and then discuss them in class, and it wasn’t always completely obvious how this would relate to our job three to five years or ten years, however many years down the line. Except that I feel there will be some day where I’m having a question and I’ll be like, “Oh, I remember that time I watched Motorcycle Diaries, and this thing going on in my brain right now is happening because of that.”

I love Leigh Hafrey because he does a really good job at creating a conversation that is really hard to have and getting people to open up on a really deep and personal level, in a way that isn’t going to come out when you’re doing an operations case. And I felt like I got to know my classmates on a level that no other experience in business school would have allowed me. Getting to know someone on that kind of moral level and to have people bring out stories that are really personal in that setting is kind of remarkable, and I think it’s because of Leigh Hafrey’s ability to bring that out in people.

Unless you know someone really well, they’re not going to tell you, even in a social setting—we have 400 classmates, and you’re not going to get to know every single one of them on the level that allows them to tell you a really deep story about themselves that has some vulnerability in it. And I think that’s a really important thing to have when you’re building a group of people to be leaders, having them bond with each other. So he does a really good job of bringing out those deep connections in the classroom.

mbaMission: How would you characterize social life at the school?

AF: Social life is great. And I would say the number one reason for it being great is that the people are just awesome. I really think that MIT Sloan, I don’t know what criteria they use to pick people to come here, but it is a really high concentration of genuinely good people. Just very kind, warm, intelligent, humble, all of the things I mentioned before. That makes the social experience that much more positive, because you actually want to get to know your classmates on a social level. And we have some traditions that happen. So, on Thursdays, we have parties called C-Functions. C-Function is Consumption Function, which is an economics term, so it’s kind of a joke on drinking and economics. We have that, and a cultural group will put on the C-Function for that week.

So, there will be a Japanese C-Function or an LGBT C-Function. There are ones as random as the New England C-Function. And there’s usually a performance for maybe 20 or 30 minutes at the beginning and a theme. So those are really fun, and they always have free food and beer. And then on Wednesdays, the Sloanies take over a bar across on the Boston side in Beacon Hill called the Beacon Hill Pub. You can always find fun people at that bar on Wednesday nights.

So those are two main pillars of the social circle that happen every week, and MIT has the Muddy Charles [Pub] that a lot of people go to and hang out at and do homework and grab a beer. There are also a lot of cool weekend trips that happen, kind of spontaneously—like a trip to Iceland. There’s a lot of different social things. We have a fall ball and a spring gala for our formals, and those are a fun opportunity for us to dress up. I think it’s great. I always have fun hanging out with classmates. It makes it really hard to go back to New York and visit my non-Sloan friends because I love it here so much. And it goes by so fast.

mbaMission: Have you been involved with any of the clubs on campus?

AF: Sure. Clubs are a big thing. I was managing director of the MIT 100K Entrepreneurship Competition, which is actually an MIT club, not a Sloan club. So that was a very time-intensive but rewarding process. It’s nearly a full-time job on top of classes and homework and socializing and all of that, but it was really amazing and a great opportunity to kind of put my blood and sweat into the system, into the ecosystem, to support other people, because everyone—both the Sloan students and the engineering students—are so inspiring and passionate about projects that they’re working on and turning them into real companies. It was really incredible to see some people have an idea that was nothing more than an idea actually out in the world launching a company a year later and raising money and making an impact in the world. So that is really incredible and really let me get to know the entire campus.

mbaMission: Sure, I can see that. As an aspiring entrepreneur, have you had much interaction with the career development office?

AF: Yeah. The career development office [CDO] has something called career core during the course of the semester. So on Friday mornings, there’ll be different sessions on, you know, how to be an effective networker or how to build your resume, how to negotiate salary, or terms of employment, or all the types of skills and things that you need to be aware of during your recruiting process. They have sessions on that, and they’ll have different people come in and teach sessions or talk about their experience with those different aspects. And the staff at the CDO is always available for meetings. If you want someone to look over your resume or want to talk to them about something that you’re considering or whatever, you can set up an appointment.

They build a resume book that they send out to all of the companies that they have relationships with, and those companies will have our resumes. I actually, in August, I got an email from Samsung saying, “We saw your resume in the resume book. We’d like for you to apply.” So those types of things happen, where the company gets your information and then is coming to you, which is great.

They also have a portal on their Web site with all of the jobs and interview schedules posted so that you can apply for a job and have it go that way also. As an entrepreneur, I didn’t use them too much. You know, as an entrepreneur you kind of need to go get a job for yourself.

Eventually, I’d love to start my own business. Obviously it’s nearing graduation, and I haven’t done that already, mostly because I’ve been so involved in a number of activities on campus that I haven’t actually focused on starting my company. So that might happen or, you know, there are a number of companies in the Boston area that are interesting to me. So I will be looking into that and seeing if I can secure a job with one of them if I’m not starting a company myself.

mbaMission: Right. Do you have a venture in mind?

AF: I have a team. I mean, I know a couple of friends, engineers and business people that would be interested in working together. So we’re trying to brainstorm things that we’d want to work on together.

But every interaction I’ve had with the CDO has been very supportive. I was considering an internship actually with a professor last year who wanted me to work for him. And so I was kind of like, how do I negotiate with someone that’s teaching me in class? What’s the appropriate way to have that discussion? Ultimately, I didn’t take that job, but I talked to them about it. I actually got that job at Samsung, but I’m not going to take it, so I also talked to them about the best way to turn that offer down.

mbaMission: Sure. Did you take an internship anywhere after your first year?

AF: Actually, yeah, kind of an unconventional one. I participated in the new start-up accelerator called the MIT Founders’ Skills Accelerator that’s being run out of the entrepreneurship center here at MIT. It was the first year that it was run, and I joined one of the teams that was selected to participate. I joined that team for the summer and then decided it wasn’t the one. But it was a really great program. It was great to get to know the eight or ten other MIT teams. It’s not just Sloan but MIT teams going into that accelerator, which is really awesome.

mbaMission: I see. What would you tell candidates considering Sloan for their MBA? What do you think they should know about the school?

AF: About Sloan? That’s a good question. I think it’s mostly about the people. The people are really what made this experience what it’s been for me, and I think having that community has been really invaluable. The kind of humility and positivity and friendliness and openness of the people that go here make it such a great experience. So its community is the best part of it.

And the sense of entrepreneurial spirit. It happens in, I think, everyone, even if they’re not looking to be an entrepreneur. That’s something that kind of comes across in everyone. People want to be creative, and there’s a lot of that here as well.

But on the flipside of that, I’ve had people say, “Well, I don’t want to do a start-up, and Sloan is so heavy in that, so maybe I shouldn’t go.” But I don’t think that’s the case. You don’t have to want to be an entrepreneur to fit in at Sloan. But you might end up taking an entrepreneurial approach to business at a large company. It’s the only way to innovate in companies that are already established, pretty much.

I would add that if I did give advice on applying to business school, what would I say is go and visit the places. Talk to as many alumni as you can, and figure out like what feels right, because the people are the most important thing. And how do you like to study? I came to MIT because I like to study things by doing them. That’s why I came here, and so if you don’t like that, that’s fine, but do whatever feels right to you.

So don’t look at the rankings, talk to the people, go and visit class and get a feeling for it. You’ll probably end up in the right place if you do that.

mbaMission: If you do your research?

AF: Yeah, if you do your research, you’ll end up in the right place. I believe that.




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